The latest restaurant from Rainer Becker steers away from the traditional with no sacrifice to quality. James Stagg reports
Few could accuse Rainer Becker of ignoring convention, having established two restaurant brands (backed by Arjun Waney) in Zuma and Roka that are celebrated as classics of Japanese consistency. But Inko Nito, on the edge of London’s Soho, opened with barely the swing of a saké hammer to herald its arrival. This is a brand that is able to relax a little, with room for experimentation.
Like Roka, it’s a robatayaki restaurant – with most dishes cooked over coals on the robata grill – but here the menu is more accessible, and with a less conventional twist.
Devised with group executive chef Hamish Brown, the pair’s experience with Japanese cuisine has informed the concept with room for experimental flavour combinations that pack an umami-rich punch at an affordable price-point.
“We take local produce that’s readily available and more cost-effective to offer great food at an accessible price,” Brown explains. “While we’ve got strict guidelines for Roka, here we can change it up a bit and open the pantry. We use mint, jalapeño pepper, cashews, romaine lettuce and some Korean influences.”
The 90-cover site is laid-back, with a largely walk-in policy and only a few tables available to book. Elsewhere diners sit on wooden stools at thick timber counters, placed at a variety of heights around the grill. It’s a large, high-ceilinged site, with counters spaced well apart, so while diners might be rubbing shoulders with each other, they’re not bashing backs.
The idea is to create an inclusive atmosphere where diners engage with each other and chefs interact with guests. The menu has a comforting glossary of terms on one side, so diners can be warned that shichimi is a blend of chilli pepper, while katsuobushi is dried tuna.
“We asked ourselves what the most uncomfortable thing is about going to restaurant,” says Brown. “One was not being sure of the terms – mostly you don’t want to ask.”
The menu is split into five sections, with hot and cold dishes direct from the kitchen and a selection of meat, fish and vegetable dishes cooked on the centrepiece robata grill.
Dishes from the kitchen lean towards a starter style, with the main-event robata dishes saved for larger sharing plates. From the hot kitchen, panko-fried chicken (£6.80) comes sliced for sharing and dipping into the chilli garlic yogurt, while salmon teriyaki (£9.60) is available in the cold section of the menu despite seeing some flame before being served with wasabi ponzu, watercress and butter lettuce.
There’s a reason the robata grill takes pride of place. Four chefs from the eight-strong brigade surround the coals, serving up crowd-pleasers such as beef cheek, spicy Korean miso, pickled daikon and butter lettuce (£19) as well as more exotic dishes including cobia collar and brown butter ponzu (£17.60). Here the collar is grilled before being served with a beurre noisette combined with ponzu instead of citrus.
“We’re taking a classic and twisting it,” says Brown. “The cobia is really popular in Japan. We eat it for a staff meal and everyone loves it, so I thought, why not sell it? So we found a product we could buy that is fully sustainable.”
More unconventional alliances can be found in the cauliflower and roasted garlic soy aïoli with Parmesan panko (£4.80). “The cauliflower is blanched to suck in some moisture so that it can handle the fire and take on some smoky flavour without drying out,” Brown says. “It’s an example of how we’ve taken a dish in a different direction, as it’s not traditional. We roast the garlic with soy and make a nice aïoli. It’s full of umami with the Parmesan panko on top.”
The entire menu has been developed for speed and satisfaction. Brown says he has “taken away the cheffiness a little” with the detail in the production and flavour profiling so that dishes can be simply cooked on the coals and assembled to order.
The same might be said of the drinks, with draught Kirin beer accompanied by four cocktails – such as the ichigo negroni: gin, plum saké, Merlet strawberry and Campari – all served from a bespoke drinks pod that also houses three sakés, four white and four red wines.
“We’ve started from scratch with everything,” Brown says. “After 15 years of Roka, we didn’t want to do something similar. We’ve taken a new approach to design, energy and style of service.”
From the menu
Grilled baby gem, Korean chilli and onion wafu dressing £5
Portland crab tartare, wasabi mayo, chicken skin and roasted nori £11.80
Fried peppers, sesame furikake and wasabi mayo £6.50
Kimchi rice, Korean miso, spring onions, sesame and egg yolk £6.60
Bone marrow, smoked soy, garlic toast and shallot £6.60
Pork belly, chilli and Japanese whisky glaze £13.80
Whole tiger prawns, garlic and lemon sansho £15.50
Salmon fillet, grapefruit miso and sansho salt £13.80
Grilled aubergine, garlic lemon miso and spring onions £4.80
55 Broadwick Street, London W1F 9QS www.inkonitorestaurant.com